Prelude to Civil War: The Nullification Controversy - William W. Freehling Probably the best study of the Nullification Crisis of 1832.

In November 1832, South Carolina was already making hints it would withdraw from the Union. The ostensible issue was tariffs (always money, always money,) but Freehling shows the importance of the slave issue in the crisis. Andrew Jackson threatened publicly to send in the troops and privately to hang John C Calhoun, the Everett Dirksen of ante-bellum. Nullification was the belief, prevalent in the south, that states could deny the constitutionality of federal laws and refuse to abide by them. In what has to be one of the most ironic pronouncements in American history, the S.C Congressman George McDuffie said, "We should infinitely prefer that the territory of the state should be the cemetery of freeman than the habitation of slaves." The governor marshaled an informal army and purchased weapons in the north so as to be ready to defend Charleston should Old Hickory invade the state and try to force collection of the tariffs due the federal government.

South Carolina low-country aristocracy, forced by malarial swamps where they raised sea-island cotton and rice, to abandon their plantation between May and the first frost in November, created a gentile society that valued social pretensions and was quick to see insult. They despised all forms of manual labor and reopened the slave trade in the early 1800's to insure an adequate labor supply. This raised its own set of problems for during the months when they were gone the ratio of black to white, already as high as 5-1 ballooned even higher. There was always a sense of paranoia amidst the gentry. But they had lots of time on their hands and became experts at politics and brooding.

Despite the difference between the lowlanders and the highlanders, one element that gave them common cause was slave ownership. It provided a political cohesion and unity that caused all other political movements to pale in comparison. Opposition to tariffs had not been exclusively South Carolinian. At one time or another all economic interests that deemed themselves to be at a disadvantage from federal tariffs had fought (if not literally) against federal interference.

"A society reveals its deepest anxieties when it responds hysterically to a harmless attack." The nascent abolitionist movement struck fear in the hearts of the southern gentry. But the fear had economic roots. After all, abolition would have wiped out $80 million in property. Naturally, the debate became infused with the threat of other dire consequences: rape, murder, mayhem, etc. The Declaration of Independence and the words of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson represented a real threat to slave owners who insisted that Fourth of July celebrations be for "white" only. "The sight of a slave listening to a fourth of July oration chilled the bravest southerner." The mere idea that if man's natural rights were violated, insurrection was a legitimate tool to fix the injustice was frightening. The Vesey slave insurrection of 1822 was a recent reminder of what they might face. Vesey, a brilliant and charismatic black who had purchased his freedom, used the words of the Bible and the Declaration of Independence to form an abortive insurrection.

This linkage of education and religion caused some difficult issues for the low-country gentry. Because the area was so malarial, they often left supervision of their slaves to overseers who remained unsupervised themselves. This meant cruelty was not unusual despite contracts that prohibited it. Until the Vesey rebellion, slave owners, not willing to risk possible salvation for their slaves, since the prevailing view was that eternal salvation depended on earthly conversion so it had not been uncommon for owners to permit their slaves relatively unencumbered religious education which often included instruction in reading. Until Vesey that is, when many began to worry more about their necks than their slave's redemption.

So what does all this have to do with nullification? The slaveholders had become quite defensive about their "peculiar" institution and began to argue in pro-slavery tracts that it was a national good because cotton and rice were national goods and that to place a tariff on those products was detrimental to the nation. Anything that smacked of discussion or defense of slavery was to be nipped in the bud.

John C Calhoun, in his bid to become president, had accepted the position of Secretary of War under Monroe. The War of 1812, despite the reasonably favorable Treaty of Ghent, had provided ample evidence of the need for a more national cohesion, robust infrastructure, and national currency through a national bank. Calhoun supported all of these and supported a national tariff to help pay for them. His provincial South Carolinians, relying on the export of staples and distrusting manufacturing as an economic base, required free trade so they had little preference for the tariff.

By the mid-1820's the Vesey rebellion, northern agitation for abolition and the tariff, commerce with free black sailors in S.C. ports (they were permitted to act as free while in port and this was considered a bad influence on S. C. slaves), as well as Pinckney's agitation against the Missouri Compromise, laid the groundwork for anti-federal feeling that resulted in sectionalist fervor. All of these forces combined to create a climate of fear and doom which caused an excessive reaction to federal power, even though the problems had been self-inflicted. (Dare one see a parallel to today given our excessive fear of terrorism?)

The theory behind nullification was that the states had existed before the revolution and that states should have the right to act independently and that federal law was not supreme. In the meantime, Calhoun was losing power and the Jacksonians were gaining. In fact, Jackson's response to the crisis might have prevented an early secession and his adherence to unionist principles laid the groundwork for Lincoln's response just a few decades later. One could argue that the failure of nullification made secession almost inevitable given the South's strong defense of slavery and reliance on agricultural economics susceptible to huge swings in value. On the other hand, had nullification succeeded, the union would most likely have failed to function.

The question of states v federal power, I believe, has yet to be fully resolved, the pendulum swinging back and forth throughout our history. (When the governor of Texas recently threatened secession only half in jest, I fear my response was, Yes!) And now that Senate filibuster rules have virtually created a parliamentary system, well, who knows what will evolve next.